1. My pal Hector and I were discussing how both our wives indoctrinated us in 1970s light rock, starting with Olivia Newton-John and ELO. As lifelong music snobs, we'd shunned this music for years, but our Achilles Heel, it turned out, was a childhood attachment to Grease, which secretly inculcated us in ONJ and served as the gateway drug to Xanadu and ELO. As we learned about l-o-v-e, of course, we gravitated to music made for adults, stuff with a certain romantic and progressive/feminine emotionality, i.e. willowy women and bearded men in satin and denim who sang about feelings, nothing more than feelings. I've covered some of this in previous posts, how certain childhood touchstones direct our personal tastes and how certain 70s artists (Bee Gees) erased sexual and racial barriers in ways that probably made Barack Obama inevitable. (Yeah, you read me right: I just said that the Bee Gees made Barack Obama possible.)
And so: Robert Palmer, a member in good standing of the late 70s soft rock industrial complex. After his two-dimensional 80s outings, he's probably nobody's idea of a visionary or even an interesting person. And yet his 70s blue-eyed R&B period is full of unexpected pleasures and subterranean connections, the godfather to modern blue-eyed belters Jamie Lidell and Robin Thicke. On his second LP, Pressure Drop from 1976, he's got members of Little Feat and The Meters laying down some of the tightest funk grooves ever put on tape, with Palmer as the suave band leader cum sex symbol. This is music that speaks more to the body than the mind, but that's not a fault, it's the point. The result, in this household, is presently napping in her crib.
You can download the entire A side of the LP HERE, wherein you'll hear:
Give Me an Inch
Work to Make It Work
Back In My Arms (<-- fantastic)
[Duly noted: Robert Christgau, who detests Palmer, was compelled to improve his grade of Addictions, Vol. 1 because his wife really likes him -- kind of says it all, no?]
2. Until now, I never really liked The Bad Plus. For me, their jazz-nerd deconstruction of "Iron Man" is really interesting and clever, but a tad studious and inside-jokey, like two protractors and an abacus making fun of a moss-covered stone. "Ha!" What they've lacked, for me, is emotional resonance and a certain lyricism. But on their latest record, For All I Care, they've brought in a relatively unknown singer named Wendy Lewis and injected something lyrical and, importantly, feminine. It's still a very "cool" sounding album and there's plenty of pomo jazz-boy quantum mechanics going on, but the excellent cover choices (Bee Gees, Roger Miller) and the need to stifle it and let the singer sing have penned in the Bad Plus's more obtuse impulses. And Lewis's singing style never gets too mawkish, although she's not afraid to let a note croon when it needs to. For my money, this Yes cover is one of the best things to happen this year:
Long Distance Runaround - The Bad Plus
3. The crooked path between cabaret and rock is a treacherous one because the chances of falling into the adult contemporary ditch are very high. You may be surprised to hear this, but a master of threading the needle is k.d. lang, who I've only discovered in the last year. Her vocal presence is unbelievably warm and potent. Like The Bad Plus, she has a smart ear for good songs and, crucially, exquisite taste in arrangements and production quality. Her 1988 countripolitan album Shadowland is one of the best sounding albums produced in the last 20 years. And I discovered this cover, below, over the summer while trolling the CD collection of the hippie parents of a friend of mine. It's from 1997's Drag.
The Air That I Breathe - k.d. lang